From Annapolis to Prince William County, the phenomenon hasn't gone unnoticed: More than the usual number of squirrels lie crushed along the roads, and people are wondering why.
"There are a lot of kamikaze squirrels out there," Tamara Thurlow, a Prince William pet store clerk who has had questions from puzzled customers, said yesterday. "Haven't you noticed them flying out in front of cars? You have to dodge, but I swear about every mile you can find one that didn't make it. They sure take chances."
A bumper crop of acorns -- the preferred food of squirrels -- over the past few years has resulted in a bumper crop of squirrels in the Washington area, animal experts say.
"We have been bombarded by squirrels in my tree-lined neighborhood in Falls Church," said Mary Anne Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Experts suggest the increased population -- squirrels mate twice a year when food is abundant -- has resulted in more competition for food and has caused squirrels to venture farther to find it. Those searches have sent them scurrying by the hundreds under the wheels of cars and through neighborhoods.
"It's the largest road kill of squirrels I have ever seen in my life," Maryland state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel) said yesterday. "It's so prevalent around the greater Annapolis area that I am going to call the Department of Natural Resources for an answer to what is happening to the squirrel population.
"I don't know if it's related to so much deforestation, with so much of their habitat being destroyed by development in my area, or an overabundance of squirrels."
"I was going to say there are so many dead squirrels in the roads because they aren't very fast," said Doug Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation in Washington. "But there is good reason to believe that there is a strong tie between the abundance of food and population levels."
Automobile-dodging gray squirrels, which are a type of tree squirrel, have been nicknamed "kamikaze squirrels" because of the reckless abandon they demonstrate in crossing roads, Thurlow said.
"If they are hungry enough, they will do anything," said Linda Lieberman, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in the District who is nursing 30 orphaned squirrels.
Favorable weather conditions resulted in a bumper crop of acorns over the past few years, which encouraged increased squirrel mating, Lieberman said. When squirrels mate twice in a year, she said, they produce litters of up to seven babies each time. The babies live in nests with food provided by their mothers until they reach the self-feeding age of three months.
Although highly intelligent, squirrels are known to forget where they have hidden food, so they are likely to hoard acorns and nuts, often burying each nut in a separate hole, in preparation for the winter months, experts said.
Lieberman said the animals are especially susceptible to fatalities on roadways because they lack good close-up vision and depth perception and therefore don't realize their proximity to cars when they decide to scamper across roads, she said.
Evidence also suggests the animals are confused by loud noise from traffic and construction projects. "A lot of people in this area are cutting down trees and that takes away from their habitat and food sources," she said. "Man is pushing the squirrels into urban areas."
Gary Sprifke, administrator of Prince William's Animal Control Bureau, said he feels sorry for the animals, but their proliferation has resulted in so many complaints this year that he purchased 10 squirrel traps to lend to residents.
"Even here at the bureau they have chewed on a plastic trash can to get at the grain we keep for the farm animals, dug up flower bulbs and they are always in the bird feeder," he said. "They are looking for food and they are aggressive about it."
Staff writer Lisa Leff contributed to this report.
Description: The gray squirrel, which is one of the tree squirrels, is a rodent. It can grow to nearly 20 inches, including its tail, and weigh up to 25 ounces.
Signs of presence: Gnawed corn husks, acorns or nutshells littering the ground. In the winter and spring, gnawed tree trunks or limbs and ragged holes in snow or earth where squirrels have dug out nut caches.
Mating: Occurs in midwinter and yields a litter of two or three squirrels in the spring. In years when there is an abundance of acorns and other food, mating may happen twice, yielding healthier litters of two to seven squirrels. Squirrels live an average of two to five years.
Other characteristics: Gray squirrels are especially active in morning and evening, particularly in dry weather. They do not hibernate. They feed primarily on nuts, fruits, seeds and young birds. They move nuts or seeds they find up to 100 feet and bury them individually. Squirrels do not remember where nuts are buried but can smell them under a foot of snow. Gray squirrels can become confused by construction, noise and traffic. There is some evidence that they have poor depth perception, causing them to misjudge distance of vehicles when crossing a roadway. They live in trees, using either natural cavities in stout mature trees or standing dead ones.
SOURCE: Local wildlife experts and The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals.